Sunday, August 22, 2010

Musings of a Food Powered Work Machine

Hopefully this entry will signal the start of more frequent posting from my outpost.  I have just finished three intense weeks of work in the town of Morogoro, and am now back safe in my expat ghetto in Dar es Salaam.  Despite some grueling hours lately, I did manage to squeeze in two three-hour hikes and a 1000 km road trip. 

The road trip was for work, the hikes were ‘fun’.  The first hike was from Morogoro up to a nearby waterfall, and turned out to be little more than an overpriced uphill march through People Tryin’ A Sell Me Shit Land.  I am attaching a picture if only a reference point for the Second Waterfall. 

(Interesting aside: along the way we passed a woman making small brown rolls that looked like clay.  They were a locally produced nutritional supplement for pregnant women that, for a price of course, we could try.  So I gave it a go. As I am crunching on something that tastes like pre-fired ceramics, the guide further described this local specialty – made of clay from the nearby woods, they also have the secondary use of decorating the exterior of mud huts.  I have to admit that they got me good.  If a bunch of people earning in a day what I made in a year came stomping through my town, I might be tempted to amuse myself by making them pay to eat dirt too.)

Three days after that so-called adventure, I set off on a real odyssey.  I had three field teams to visit, all in the mother-loving middle of nowhere in central Tanzania.  So packed up the car and the research assistant and off we went.  Note that road trips in Africa are a little different than those in the developed world.  The essential ingredients, like road signs, maps, gas stations, and, in certain places, the roads themselves, are non-existent.  I got well acquainted with my gas light over these three days.  The first day I really almost got us stranded.  I left the regional capital with what I thought was a half-tank, but discovered after about 20 minutes that I had a sticky gas gauge and, by the time I got to the next sign of civilization, I was down well under a quarter.  The one station in that town, however, didn’t have any gas that day.  Unable to make it back, we decided to press on, even though where we were leaving the paved road and all logical hope of finding gas.  Things were looking pretty dire when we finally passed a dusty building marked ‘filing station’.  Gratefully we pulled in.  We knocked on the door and found the Tanzania equivalent of stoned gas station attendants watching a bootleg action DVD on vintage computer screen.  There were some language difficulties, but they were desperately trying to convince us to join them.   We explained that we were looking for petrol.  They assured us that ‘Mr. Petroli’ would be here shortly and that we should just have a seat.  Sensing we were in the company of morons (who had probably watched a few too many bootlegs about American women), we decided to take our chances with the road.  And left.  But by now my gas light was on.  We rolled (literally) into the next town and fortunately located a village gas station (a 100 gallon metal drum of gas that was transferred to my tank using a bucket and funnel system) and were able to purchase 10 liters (about 3 gallons and enough to get us through).  But evidencing that I have much work to do here in Africa spreading the gospel of market economics, they only charged us only a tiny markup over the price in town, even though I was rich, in trouble and without an alternative.  Makes a girl want to trace supply and demand curves in the dirt. 

Next day we began, with a full tank this time, a two day odyssey to visit two more teams operating further south.  I didn’t have a map or anything in the way of concrete directions but fortunately there are only about 10 roads in this country so it is hard to miss your turn.  About three hours into a nasty five hour drive mostly on dirt, I found out that the field teams I was headed for had had some transportation issues (completely believable since I more than once worried that I had broken my axel on unexpected moon crater in the road) and hadn’t started working yet.  This coincided with my arrival at another national park, so we decided to bugger off for a few hours and hike a waterfall. 

We chose the Sonje Falls in the Udzungwa Mountains.  Sonje Falls are the ‘highest falls in a national park in Tanzania’ – rising in a three tiered cascade 180 m (more than 500 ft) through the forest.  (I’m attaching a distance shot for reference.)  From the top, which if you can make it there, they let you walk right up to the edge and look down at the endless flat valley of sugar cane in front of you.  (This is sugar country – we pass a high school whose name translated as ‘Secondary School of Cane Cutters’ – certainly a name that encourages students to dream big.) 

Happy to have gotten a good hike in, we headed for the teams.  Meeting one team that afternoon, we talked ourselves into an overnight at some Swiss fancy tropical medicine research center, and headed to see the other the next morning.  My directions were to cross the Kilombero River and follow the road 75 kilometers.  I was in for two surprises that morning.  First, I had naively expected a bridge.  Instead I joined a queue of all-night truckers high on glue waiting to cross on a rickety metal ferry.  Secondly, I thought we would be driving through more flat, dusty valley.  Instead I found myself leaning on the horn almost continuously as I wound through narrow mountain roads (which were inexplicably and mercifully paved!) – really hoping that my story didn’t end in a head on with a lorry full of illegal timber. 

But we survived, visited the team, and made it all the way back to Dar by yesterday afternoon, stopping only to buy some local fabric, a blanket weaved by leper women (the store was advertised in the Swiss tropical medicine center so I am assuming that my toes aren’t going to fall off from using it), and a strange little carving made of wood, bone and porcupine quills from a road side stand that had a bunch of carvings and a phone number written on the wall in chalk if you wanted to buy anything. 

(And as a bonus, I am attaching pictures of this fun multi-tone grasshopper that I found and the *huge* spiders that live in the tree under which I parked my car each morning.)

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